FROM A RESIDENT TO A REFUGEE
A freedom fighter reminiscing the perils of partition by Assandas Bherewani as narrated to Sundar Iyer
It was on that fateful day of October 1947. The sun had already set low far away in the horizon. We had to steer through the troubled waters literally. What was to begin was by no means of imagination, an easy journey. We were all gathered at the port of Karachi to embark on a ship, which would deport us into Indian territories. The Karachi port was crammed with Sindhi Hindus who were hoping to get onto the ship and literally sail away from the atrocities of the estranged Muslim brothers of our homeland, Sindh. The Sindh Provincial Congress distributed the tickets for our journey to India. We had been compelled by the prevailing circumstances in Sindh to leave behind an ancestry of riches and search for new habitat in a distant land.
Our journey of departing from our homelands, virtually parting away from our past, was by no means a memorable experience but those horrifying moments still linger in my mind. Time too has failed to erase those black moments from the lives of us Sindhis. I remember those tragic moments very well. It was and remains our worst nightmare. The riots that preceded our departure from Sindh left us with no hope. Many of my fellow brothers lost their lives unnecessarily in those days of communal unrest. We had no one to turn to and were left completely helpless. We could think of no alternative but to abandon the confines of our home and search for a habitat in a distant land, thus making us Sindhis the worst affected in the Indian Independence. The partition did not only take away our lands from us but it also parted us from our ancient civilization. Freedom, we did achieve, but at a grave cost. Life had given us a raw deal. What wrong had we done to deserve such measly treatment? Why were we forced out of our land?
I recall, even prior to boarding the ship the security guards harassed us a lot by emptying our baggage and confiscating everything that was of interest to them. We weren’t allowed to keep any money while now our valuables too were a part of their loot.
Enroute to India we were literally counting the seconds. The ship was besieged by the miseries of its passengers. Scenes of weeping women, men blindly gazing at stars, tears trickling down the cheeks of children who went to sleep on empty stomachs, it all added to an eerie feeling of silence that engulfed the milieu. No one knew what the future had in sotre. After those hours of uncertainty, our ship finally sailed into Indian territory. In those days Sindh was a part of the then Bombay Province, hence it was natural for us to come to Bombay. We were disembarked at the docks in Bombay and were immediately transported by trucks to the refugee camps specially set up at Powai. Put up at barracks and tents, we were hardly welcome in our new homes. Could we even call them our homes? Our lives had witnessed a complete turn around. Independence to us came at the cost of being converted from a resident into a refugee.
Having spent nearly eight long months as refugees in the tents of Powai, we started losing all expectations from the authorities on our rehabilitation. As the President of the Panchayat, I led truckloads of people to Kalyan Camp, the Ulhasnagar of today. We broke the locks of the military camp and settled there. We distributed the furniture in the various sheds amongst ourselves. The then Chief Minister of Bombay Province, Shri B G Kher arranged a meeting with me and insisted on us vacating the camp immediately. But after repeated requests, he was convinced of our plight and decided to distribute those sheds for our accommodation. Thus the Powai Chowk at Ulhasnagar was formed.
I remember how passionately we Sindhis fought for the Indian Independence. Born on the 4th of February 1920, I was in my mid twenties during the days of pre-partition. I was actively involved in the freedom struggle right from a young age. A true Gandhian, I was a loyal congressman and served the Dadu District Congress as its Secretary for a few years. Highly inspired by leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and J P Narayan, I was also jailed during the battle for Independence. I was also a part of the Congress Socialist Party and was a close associate of Jai Prakash Narayanji.
During one of his visits to Bombay, I had taken J P Narayan to Ulhasnagar to show him the plight of Sindhis and address their problems. He was duly worried at our state and out of concern remarked, “Sindhis are a majority because they are Hindus; but Sindhis are a minority too because they are Sindhis.” He insisted that the community must have a reservation in the parliament. He used to repeatedly say, if Anglo-Indians can get it, so must the Sindhis. Jai Prakash Narayanji regularly voice his ire against the authorities on their inability to rehabilitate Sindhis and if Gandhiji were alive he too would have been up in arms to support our cause. During the days of Independence struggle, we always raised slogans of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, we never went about calling ‘Sindhu Mata Ki Jai’. Hence we came to take refuge in India.
As a youngster, I recollect my college days in Shikarpur when I used to place the ‘Quomi Jhanda’ in Muslim dominated areas to the absolute delight of the locals. Both Hindus and Muslims in Sindh lived in complete harmony during the pre-Independence days. We loved our Muslims brothers and always helped them at every opportunity. Despite belonging to the minority in Sindh and constituting just one-third of the population, we Sindhis contributed wholesomely to the growth of Sindh. We Sindhis took the lead in activities involving trade, culture and education. Although Sindhi Hindus set up most schools, colleges, hospitals etc in the region, they served all communities without any difference. This was primarily due to the rich influence of Sufism and Vedanta in our lives.
The Dadu District Rashtriya Seva Dal used to conduct military parades each morning. But this practice of ours came to a grinding halt due to the increasing tensions between members of both the communities. The atrocities on us grew by the hour while the police too turned a deaf hear to our repeated complaints. We resisted for long but once the abuses and insults were targeted at our women folk, we couldn’t hold fort. Things soon got out of hand and we had very little to do but leave our land.
Gandhiji always said Swaraj will be for everyone, but today so many years after Independence, Gujaratis have Gujarat, Maharashtrians have Maharashtra but we Sindhis have no state of our own. During the 1931 All India Congress Meet, it was decided that India should be developed on the basis of linguistic states. But one of the oldest and most ancient languages, Sindhi didn’t have its own state in Independent India. Even Punjab and Bengal were partitioned but unlike them, we didn’t even get an inch of our homeland. Sindh even finds it mention in the national anthem but rather unfortunately Sindh misses from the map of India. The Sindhi language needs to be recognized and given true due. Jagadguru Shankaracharya of Kanchi recently said, “Islamic nations, China, Russia too are passionate about their language. It is the wide usage of the mother-tongue that shall help a nation achieve greater heights.”
We have always been in the forefront in various national activities. During the freedom struggle, Sindhis wholeheartedly contributed donations to our leaders for the cause of Independence. I remember the formation of Netaji Subash Chandra Bose’s INA was chiefly possible due to the wholehearted contributions by the Sindhi NRI’s and Sindhwarkis settled in Burma, Indonesia and various other parts of South East Asia on the insistence of Dr. Choithram Gidwani. Even today approximately one third of all NRI donations are from Sindhis. Today all that we need is an identity that would help us be recognized as Indians. According to me the formation of the Sindhi state Sindhu Desh is the only solution to preserve our rich heritage. It is the only way to help us save our culture, identity and serve the nation better. The Sindhi civilization and its vast history, the roots of Indian culture need to be respected and safeguarded. It is in the best interest of the country.